One of the most gratifying aspects of the effort underway at Oregon State University to reassess the names of some campus buildings has been the spotlight it's cast on how professional historians approach their work.
Regardless of what you think about the OSU effort, which hit a milestone last week when President Ed Ray announced his decision to rename Benton Hall, Benton Annex and Avery Lodge but to retain the names of Arnold Dining Hall and Gill Coliseum, the historical reports that were researched and written on each building provided not just illumination into the past but a vivid example of how historians approach their work.
Just as intriguing, the rigorously researched and well-written reports also show the limits of what historians can know for sure.
It's a message that Stacey Smith, the associate professor of history at OSU who led the effort to compile the reports, frequently tells her students: "Ninety-eight percent of the past is irretrievable," she said. "We can't recover it. We're left just trying to put together these tiny fragments to put together a portrait of these people."
And that's work, Smith told me in an interview last week, that seeks to "complicate and contextualize" the lives led by the namesakes of the buildings under review. People don't lead lives that are black or white; we all live, to some extent, in shades of gray. And we are, of course, shaped by the times in which we live. The trick in delving into these lives is to research primary sources, gauge the reliability of those sources (everybody has an ax to grind, and those axes must be taken into account) and to offer fair interpretation of what those sources, limited as they may be, can tell us. "History is intrinsically an interpretative discipline," she said.
At OSU, the process of identifying campus buildings named after people who might have held racist beliefs had been percolating for the last couple of years and predated this year's campus protests. But Smith said the effort had reached the point where there was "so much information and misinformation circulating" that it became apparent that it was necessary to bring in professionals to sort through the history. "They needed well-trained professional historians to give a neutral and nuanced" accounting of the lives under review, she said.
At that point, OSU administrators climbed to the roof of the Kerr Administration Building and fired up the spotlight to summon the History Squad.
Alas, no: As rewarding as I find that image, it did not happen that way. But it did make sense to reach out to Smith, considering her expertise in the history of the North American West and her research into race relations, labor and politics during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.
Smith, who declined an honorarium for the work, assembled the team that prepared the reports into the buildings. And she spent a month researching and writing the report on Joseph Avery and the naming of Avery Lodge, a potentially controversial case in that Avery also is a founder of Corvallis. Her overall conclusion: Although there's evidence that Avery did not personally hold proslavery views, it's likely that he condoned those views in the pages of the newspaper he controlled. In Smith's words, "he was willing to disseminate proslavery arguments for his political or economic gain." (Copies of the Avery report and the other three reports are attached to the online version of this column.)
Smith and her team knew that their work had the potential to stir up controversy. But, she said, "we made the concerted decision not to take a position in any of the debates," she said. "We tried to call it like we saw it."
And the assembled historians understood the opportunity that the renaming spotlight afforded: "All of us understood this to be a very important teachable moment," she said. "And an important moment for the community."
As debates over these issues get heated, she said, they tend to paint their subjects as either "good people or bad people," Smith noted. But people don't fit neatly into one of those buckets. History offers a richer, fuller portrait of those subjects and their times. And not just that: Smith and her team have shown again how history, properly done, also casts light onto the times in which we live. (mm)
I'm still seeking nominations for the Think Too Much Holiday Music Hall of Fame. Many excellent nominations already have come in, but if you have a particular performance of a holiday tune you think is definitive, let me know about it. Send your nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll announce this year's inductees in the Dec. 24 column. (mm)